Parents of children on the spectrum are often very concerned that their child has "no friends" or very few friends. This post is about how we make friends and how they play
The Right Kind of Friends
Kids on the spectrum tend to stick to only a few really close friends. They may have lots of acquaintances (and they may feel like they're all "friends") but in reality only a small number are real friends.
When it comes to spectrum friendships, like tends to attract like and you might be surprised when your child finds a friend that shows autistic traits, learning difficulties, co-conditions such as ADHD or traits such as anxiety. It's not that all kids have these differences, just that your child will seek out others who can best relate to them.
Of course, not all friends need to be neurologically similar to share characteristics. A good example of this would be children with "English as a second language". The fact that ethnic children often struggle with communication, puts them in a similar position and they can make very good friends.
The size of the school also has a fair amount of impact on friendship. Putting your child into a larger school will increase the chance of having more than one like-minded friend per year/class than a smaller school will.
Kids on the spectrum very rarely ever approach other children with the explicit aim of friendship. They may approach because they like, for example, a character on their T-Shirt or a toy that the other child is holding. Autistic children seem to favour "parallel play" where each plays alongside others with little interaction.
Usually when friendships are formed, it's because another child has approached yours.
If they aren't approached directly, kids on the spectrum will quite happily play alongside a group of other kids for years without becoming actual "friends".
When an autistic child meets a particularly sociable child, they will often adopt their friends. This can have both good and bad effects, depending upon the qualities of the other children involved. Not all children will be accepting of parallel play.
Parenting kids with "friend" issues
As a parent, you need to accept that your child will not be surrounded by friends. Don't worry too much about this, kids on the spectrum don't need heaps of friends like other children do. That's not to say that they don't get lonely but rather that they will be satisfied with less.
Lower numbers of friends, makes for a less overwhelming sensory experience and allows kids to form closer, stronger bonds.
If you are arranging an event, like a sleepover, it is wise to keep the numbers down to only a few friends and preferably one-on-one play.
Team sports are often not good for friend-making. Sports where your child can operate semi-independently and without competition, such as scouts and karate are much better.
Finally, parents need to teach their children about good behaviour and how to look after their meltdown activity so that they don't lose friends.
For example, if your child feels overwhelmed, then making an excuse to go to the toilet can reduce the sensory impact. If they do end up having a public meltdown, then it's best if it's out of sight of their friends.
It is also important to discuss your child's interactions with friends when possible as this will give you a clue about cues that your child may be missing.
If your child seems confused about some playground behaviour, have them describe the event in as much detail as possible and ask about non-verbal things too. Role-play can often help them to understand what really happened and why other children react in unexpected ways.
Updated: September 2020 to correct language and formatting.